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Equal Justice Foundation Report - David Smythe
The Polaris Project - Summer 2009
Thanks to an Equal Justice Foundation Full Grant, I was able to work as an unpaid senior legal fellow at the Polaris Project in Washington D.C. The Polaris Project is one of the foremost anti-human trafficking organizations in the nation one and it runs the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, a.k.a. the human trafficking hotline through a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. It is one of the few anti-human trafficking organizations that focus on the domestic problem of human trafficking on a national level and also one of the only programs that has a legal department that would allow me to get a law fellowship in this field. Since my career focus is anti-human trafficking work, this fellowship was ideal. Since I support myself through loans, I would not have been able to work at Polaris if not for the EJF grant.
Polaris is also one of the only organizations in the nation that focuses at least some effort on all aspects of fighting human trafficking: national and state policy, legal, training advocates of all types, running a resource center and hotline, working with federal task forces, drafting model legislation at the state and national level, international work, sex trafficking and labor trafficking, as well as client services. Their executive director is the former Ambassador of the State Department’s office to Combat and Monitor Trafficking in Persons. The result is that each part of Polaris, each activity, informs the other parts of the organization from top to bottom. This gives Polaris a balanced, realistic, holistic view, making it perhaps the most proficient expert in the nation on human trafficking. This is important to note because they took all of their knowledge and were able to share it with every fellow there, imparting to us some of their wealth of knowledge and expertise.
The summer started off great with a full week of “Human Trafficking Orientation.” Needless to say, all of that expertise was poured into that week of training. There were fifteen fellows and about twenty full time staff at Polaris this summer. For the first time, I was not the only guy devoted to fighting human slavery, but I was surrounded by others who had been fighting it longer than me, knew different aspects than me, or were new to it and were able to be inspired by those of us who had been in the fight longer. The week covered all aspects of human trafficking from its economics, support infrastructure and especially the type and nature of victims it exploits. People from every department of Polaris spoke we would get the holistic knowledge ourselves. Some of it was review for me, but even the review expanded my ability to know this information more deeply and understand more nuances and complexities. I am more able than ever to spout numbers, specific studies, specific examples and trends off the top of my head like never before. After the first week, my work in the Legal and Policy Team began.
As part of an effort to address labor trafficking, I researched laws in all fifty states the on failure or refusal to pay workers’ wages, analyzed the types of laws and I drafted model legislation toughening penalties for refusing to pay wages owed. The idea was to get at labor trafficking through a back door. If we could not prove labor trafficking and slavery, we might be able to at least prove the workers were not paid wages and get some penalty. We used this for “issue briefs” we were producing that covered labor trafficking concerns, which we used for lobbying at the National Conference of State Legislators (NCLS). I also got to help edit and research issue briefs relating to commercial child sexual exploitation. We then expanded that research to develop a chart listing what laws all fifty states have addressing various aspects of human trafficking. We finished the chart and ranked them all from best to worst, based on how good their state laws were.
That took up our first few weeks. After that, I worked on a variety of small research projects along the way. We got to attend tons of anti-human trafficking meetings at the State Department, the American Society of International Law, House Committees and more. I wrote about the Mann Act, which addresses interstate transportation of for prostitution and contributed to an article addressing the problems with libertarian policy approaches to prostitution and its impact on human trafficking. Perhaps the most significant thing that I only could have done at Polaris were the meeting, ironically enough. It was a great look at how professionals in this field develop and implement strategies. Polaris is very pragmatic which allows it to be flexible to a degree, but it can create tension because most organizations build their cause on less flexible ideologies of a broad nature. I also got to sit on conference calls for the Action Group, one of the most significant national level coalitions of anti-human trafficking organizations and better understand the dynamics of the anti-human trafficking fight itself.
My summer was unforgettable. It developed my experience and credibility in this field and has significantly advanced my contacts and abilities to build a career of fighting human trafficking into the future and it would not have been possible without the Equal Justice Foundation Grant.